Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Logo of The Middlebury Campus
Monday, Dec 11, 2023

Addison County shelters & homes adapt to challenges of Covid-19

Since the start of the pandemic, Addison County's robust network of nonprofit organizations has been reworking its services to comply with Vermont’s social distancing protocols and continue collaborative, volunteer-based service. Covid-19-induced challenges, Vermont’s worsening opioid crisis and increased demand for real estate have critically affected the lives of people experiencing homelessness within Addison County. 

More people in Addison County sought out services in 2020 than in past years, according to Helena Van Voorst, executive director of United Way of Addison County (UWAC). The John Graham shelter in Vergennes and Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) in Middlebury also noticed a sizable uptick in the number of individuals who utilized the food security, counseling and housing services this past year than in previous years.

“We saw both more people in Addison County needing help and an influx of people from outside of the county coming to Addison County for help,” Van Voorst said. She noted that Addison County organizations provided hotel rooms for approximately 85 people. 

The effects of Covid-19 on homelessness have yet to be reported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), hindering organizational efforts. While the exact result is unknown, it is clear that the crisis has correspondingly worsened.

Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans were impacted by a nationwide housing crisis. In 2020, HUD estimated that 568,000 Americans (roughly 17 in 10,000 people in the U.S.) lacked secure housing. 

Vermont accounted for 1,089 of these individuals, and 81 were within Addison County. However, the real numbers may be higher: Counts are determined using a narrow definition of homelessness that may not include everyone experiencing housing insecurity, and the count is conducted with volunteers by hand. 

Fortunately, the state loosened the rules of the General Assistance and Emergency Housing program, which is administered by Economic Services. 

“Prior to Covid-19,  there was a very specific set of requirements that people would have to meet in order to qualify for this program,” said Kelly Conley of HOPE in an email to The Campus. Now that requirements are relaxed, organizations can more easily house their clients in hotels. 

According to Jess Halper, executive director of the John Graham Shelter, her organization has placed approximately 80 households at the Marriott, Middlebury Sweets, Middlebury Inn and Sugarhouse Motel. In order to ensure social distancing, the John Graham Shelter has limited the number of households able to stay within the shelter itself.

“We have one room per household; before, there were two households per room,” Halper said. 

Complying with pandemic protocols, the John Graham Shelter has also adjusted its  operations. Clients do not need to receive a negative Covid-19 test before using the shelter’s services, but they must adhere to strict physical distancing procedures. The kitchen and living areas of the shelter, formerly communal and social spaces, are now used as quarantine spaces and rooms to hold bagged meals. Although some children still attend school in person, many join virtually using tablets provided by the shelter. 

HOPE’s most significant adjustment has been how they communicate with their clients. “We primarily are speaking with them over the phone or, on occasion, outside,” Conley said. 

Outreach and communication have been compromised in the pandemic, particularly for those who don’t consume news media, use social media or have access to the internet. UWAC has struggled to reach people to make sure their needs are being met. 

 “People might interact with their doctor, elderly service or some other organization, but with folks being mostly in their homes, we need to be sure that we connect with those people.” 

In response to this challenge, UWAC has dispersed informative flyers, resource guides and contacts for mutual aid via all-town mailings. 

“One mutual aid group gave information to first responders, so if they went to a home to perhaps help an elderly person who isn’t getting the paper or internet and who doesn’t know what help is available, the first responders are armed with a resource guide,” Van Voorst said. UWAC also launched an emergency Covid-19 relief fund called Addison County Response, which allocates philanthropic funding to people who are experiencing homelessness or about to be experiencing homelessness. 

Increased isolation and hardship have exacerbated the opioid crisis, especially among homeless individuals. Employment in Vermont has decreased by 3.1%, while substance abuse has increased. Van Voorst confirmed that drug addiction serves as a barrier to accessing immediate housing relief services. 

“When youth get in the habit of using at younger ages, it’s likely to be more problematic when they’re older. We hope that as time goes on, we’ll see fewer issues with substance abuse disorder in our adults,” she said.

The UWAC staff is working all remote, while the John Graham Shelter moved staff members into hotels to serve the needs of homeless people. 

Despite providing an essential service, nonprofits like the John Graham Shelter have had to continue working remotely partly because of their low priority status on the vaccine waitlist. 

“We had to really advocate to get ourselves even in the running for vaccines. And I can’t speak to the state’s behind-the-scenes process on that, but it is haphazard and confusing. I would say the overall stress on the staff is enormous,” Halper said. 

The lack of student volunteers has been another stressor for nonprofit employees.

 “When we were first learning that college students were going to go home was the first snap of reality… we thought about how so many nonprofits in the county are losing manpower when they need it most,” Van Voorst said. As Covid-19 worsened, organizations realised that relying on any type of volunteers would be difficult. 

More than ever, Addison County organizations are working together to step up to the novel challenges spurred by the pandemic. 

“We have really close relationships with other agencies in the community. Many of the agencies in Addison County come together once a week to meet and talk. Everyone is committed to collaboration,” Van Voorst said. To donate to Addison County organizations, visit United Way Addison County, John Graham Center and HOPE.